In my numerous discussions about gun control over the past month, I have felt that the arguments have been emotional (though there is nothing wrong with this) and somewhat lacking in any historical perspective. I am frustrated by the extremism displayed on both sides. This series of posts on gun control is a reflection of my own lack of knowledge. I found a great article from The Atlantic by Adam Winkler. The Secret History of Guns is possibly the most comprehensive and lucid article I have read on the topic. I certainly learned a lot. All quotes, unless otherwise attributed, are his.
Adam Winkler is professor of constitutional law at UCLA law school. Much of this research can be found in his book: Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America.
Winkler eloquently describes how the real struggle for modern gun control began:
“The eighth-grade students gathering on the west lawn of the state capitol in Sacramento were planning to lunch on fried chicken with California’s new governor, Ronald Reagan, and then tour the granite building constructed a century earlier to resemble the nation’s Capitol. But the festivities were interrupted by the arrival of 30 young black men and women carrying .357 Magnums, 12-gauge shotguns, and .45-caliber pistols.
The 24 men and six women climbed the capitol steps, and one man, Bobby Seale, began to read from a prepared statement. “The American people in general and the black people in particular,” he announced, must take careful note of the racist California legislature aimed at keeping the black people disarmed and powerless Black people have begged, prayed, petitioned, demonstrated, and everything else to get the racist power structure of America to right the wrongs which have historically been perpetuated against black people The time has come for black people to arm themselves against this terror before it is too late.
Seale then turned to the others. “All right, brothers, come on. We’re going inside.” He opened the door, and the radicals walked straight into the state’s most important government building, loaded guns in hand. No metal detectors stood in their way.
It was May 2, 1967, and the Black Panthers’ invasion of the California statehouse launched the modern gun-rights movement.”
While this story is historically fascinating, it is the next part that really caught my attention. The Second Amendment, contrary to everything I have understood up until now, does not clearly state that the individual has a right to bear arms. It doesn’t discuss the right to walk around in public with a gun, or whether that gun can be loaded. In fact, to again quote Mr. Winkler: “The Second Amendment is maddeningly ambiguous.”
The actual wording is: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
A well-regulated militia is a far cry from an individual concealing a weapon. Yet to many, and possibly through a well-orchestrated campaign by the NRA, this assures an individual the right to bear arms and outlaws most gun control.
What is particularly dangerous with this approach is the perception that any law, for example one that might prevent guns reaching the hands of terrorists, criminals, people with mental instability, is the beginning of a slippery path to disarming people.
I have already suggested that such extreme posturing (and on the other side, those who want a total ban on guns) has led to a chasm that we are going to have difficulty bridging. On Wednesday, we will see how often the gun lobby has been a partner in creating legislation.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).